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Eighth-grade dropout statistics released by state for first time

August 11, 2011 |  2:01 pm

Photo: Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson at a briefing in December. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times A typically overlooked corner of the dropout problem became a little more visible Thursday when state officials for the first time released the dropout rate for eighth-graders.

Statewide, about 3.5% of eighth-graders -- 17,257 in all -- left school and didn’t return for ninth grade,  according to the state count. Of those, about 4,200 dropped out during the academic year of eighth grade; more than 13,000 finished eighth grade but didn’t show up for ninth grade, the traditional beginning of high school.

"That transition from middle school to high school is crucial," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. "Those years are vulnerable years for many students, especially if a student loses hope, gets off track or falls behind."

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He noted that dropping out is the culmination of a problem that probably has been building for years. Students who are behind in reading skills by the third grade, or non-native speakers who don’t make the transition from Spanish to English, can fall increasingly behind in all their subjects. And even among eighth-graders, there is pressure in some families to earn money rather than stay in school.

Another issue that makes the problem acute is the recruitment of students at risk of dropping out by gangs. Gangs are reaching out to students by the eighth grade if not well before, he said.

“Dropout stats convert to prison stats,” Torlakson said.

The state has long been able to compare the size of eighth-grade enrollment to that in the ninth grade. But the result is an imprecise measure of dropouts, because it’s difficult to account for students who move in or out of the state or country or who switch to private school, for example.

The new tabulation is based on a unique identification number for every student. It still is likely to underestimate the number of dropouts. And eighth-graders still don't count in the official dropout rate, which is based only on what happens in high school.

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L.A. Unified was unable to provide eighth-grade graduation rates this week, although it has the data to compute them.

Overall, 74.4% of California high school students graduated in four years; 18.2% dropped out. The remainder were still in school (6.6%), in non-diploma programs for disabled students (0.5%), or exited high school by taking the General Educational Development Test (0.4%). (Figures are rounded and add up to more than 100%.)

Steep gaps persist in the dropout and graduation numbers of different ethnic groups. The graduation rate is 68% for Latinos,  59% for African American students and 56% for English-learners. 

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson at a briefing in December. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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